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This is Where We Came in: Memories of 60s Cinema-Going

By zclef78, on 10 June 2014

60s cinema An acre of seats in the garden of dreams.

Trips to the big screen are often some of our fondest childhood memories. So it was no surprise that the first UCL Festival of the Arts film event was a popular one as we spent a nostalgic hour reconstructing the space of 1960s cinema in Britain through the memories of cinema-goers.

The tiered flip down chairs of the Sir Ambrose Fleming Lecture Theatre and slideshow of iconic cinematic moments—Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, Marilyn Monroe, Breakfast at Tiffanys—set the scene for Dr Melvyn Stokes and Dr Matthew Jones (UCL History) to talk about the findings of their research project, which explores how cinema shaped the collective experience of during a period of turbulent social change.

Their research opens up questions about our notions of the relationships between memory, experience and space, as well as questioning received narratives of the 1960s decade.

Dr Henry K. Miller (film historian and critic) complemented their talk with a discussion of his research into the history of the first university film department to open in the 60s at UCL Slade School of Fine Art.

Memories of the beam of the projector surrounded by wreaths of cigarette smoke and the taste of the strange chemical concoction Kia-Ora were still tangible to the 60s cinema-goers in the audience, in contrast with my own childhood recollections of modern multiplexes which blur into one homogenous mass of popcorn-induced sugar rushes.

From ‘flea pit’ independent cinemas to the major chains ABC and Odeon, this was an age when American films dominated British screens. Many people taking part in the research wrote of seeing roadshow releases West Side StoryMy Fair Lady and Cleopatra for the first time.

But in 1967 Bonnie and Clyde burst onto the scene signalling an evolution of the kind of films emerging from Hollywood. Melvyn argued that these films had a very different kind of impact on the culture. People remembered The Graduate in particular as a film that reflected the generation gap between parents and children that they were experiencing in their own lives.

A turbulent decade

Our initiation into this diverse cinematic milieu transitioned into Matt’s discussion of British 60s film in the context of social change in Britain.

He argued that there were two competing images of Britain in the 60s which were reflected in the cinema.

First were the ‘kitchen sink dramas’ such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. These social problem films spoke to the lingering conservatism of the 50s in their austere, black and white aesthetic.

The second and prevailing image of the era is that of the Swinging Sixties. From a climate of rapid liberalisation with the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, the miniskirted sex, drugs and rock and roll culture of ‘swinging London’ films Alfie and Darling exemplified people’s changing values.

West End cinema: culture and memory

From the project’s archive of the memories of over 700 people, Matt shared with us specific recollections of the Dominion Cinema on Tottenham Court Road. The Dominion was a particular ‘destination’ space that became embedded in the memories of London cinema going in distinct ways. One remembered clearly ‘the grandeur of the building and the splendour of the film’. But Matt explained that it is not just the film itself or space of the cinema, but the character of the experience, which constitutes the memory.

Film at the Slade

The lecture segued somewhat in the middle as Henry shared with us some UCL history and scholarly film culture. Focusing on the collaboration between television historian A.J.P. Taylor and Thorold Dickinson (Professor of Film Studies at the Slade) he recounted their attempts to create a new history of television in the 60s.

Dickinson was more commonly know as the director of 1940s melodramas Gaslight and Queen of Spades, but during his time at the Slade he engaged primarily with non-fiction film and newsreels.

His recollection of the reaction to a showing of juxtaposed propaganda film in Record of War at the Film Society in the 1930s: ‘our fashionable Sunday audience with their broad brims and capes and a capacity for chatter drifted out into regent Street in dead, awed silence.’

Thirty years later, he was showing this mixture of 1930s fiction, documentary and newsreel to UCL history students when A. J. P. Taylor put on a lecture series accompanied by film screenings at the Slade. During this period, UCL became the centre for promoting film within historical studies.

As the talk came to an end, there were plenty of people in the audience who were keen to share their own memories of the cinema.

Melvyn and Matt are still looking for people to add their experiences to the project by filling out the questionnaire. For more information, visit their project website.

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